Saturday, May 16, 2015

As Letterman takes his leave

During the 1970s I sometimes watched a syndicated game show called “Liars Club.” It featured a panel of four celebrities who would be given an unusual object and asked to explain what it was. Then three contestants would have to decide which of the four was telling the truth.

One day I missed the beginning of the show, so I had no idea who one of the panelists was. The other three were familiar: Larry Hovis (formerly of “Hogan’s Heroes”), possibly Betty White (whose husband, Allen Ludden, was hosting) and someone else whom I can’t remember but certainly recognized at the time.

But the fourth panelist was a young guy I’d never seen before. But though I didn’t know him, I did know right off the bat that he was almost effortlessly hilarious.

I listened carefully so I could catch his name. Eventually someone (probably Ludden) said it:

David Letterman.

Some time later I saw this guy again. This time he was on Tom Snyder’s “Tomorrow” show along with two other people, one of whom was a young woman who seemed to agree that David Letterman was hilarious.

Merrill Markoe.

Of course I had no way of knowing that I was witnessing the start of a career that would prove to be almost as legendary as Johnny Carson’s. But if you had told me then that more than 30 years later David Letterman would be retiring at the top of his profession, I wouldn’t have stared at you in disbelief.

Because even back then, the guy had it.

Not too long after the “Tomorrow” appearance, Letterman, abetted by Markoe, hosted a live but short-lived daytime talk show on NBC. It aired in the late morning and included a brief newscast by Edwin Newman, who’d been doing a newscast during that time period for some time. Thing is, Newman’s newscast had followed one of the shows Letterman was replacing, and Newman had done it from a separate studio.

Now Newman was on stage with Letterman, and when Letterman introduced the newscast, the audience applauded -- something Newman wasn’t ready for (no one ever gave Walter Cronkite, the Most Trusted Man in America, an ovation), but he soldiered on with his customary deadpan grace.

I think I caught a number of Letterman’s morning shows – I worked nights and was usually up in the late morning – so I was able to witness the beginnings of the type of anti-conformist humor that Letterman would become more famous for at a later hour.

As much as I liked Letterman, I didn’t see his late-night shows often because I was usually working and didn’t care enough to tape him. But I knew he was there and knew that I could count on him to be funny if I happened to have a night off or get home early.

Of course, one problem with watching a performer’s career evolve over the years is that you evolve, too – or, to put it more plainly, you get older, too.

So that when Letterman, in response to critics who chide him for no longer doing the remote bits that he specialized in years ago, says he’s older and too tired, you almost identify with him. I suppose there are many people in their sixties who can say with no trace of a doubt that they could still do the things they did 30 years ago as well as they did them then.

I am not one of those people.

This doesn’t mean I’m willing to give Dave an unlimited pass. Having watched him more often during the last eight years now that I’m no longer in the newspaper business, I’ve been irritated by his habit of repeating (and maybe re-repeating) jokes from the night before or from several nights before. To be fair, I don’t think he’s done this lately, but I do know I could do without his penchant for making jokes that mean nothing to me at home but get whoops from the audience because they refer to someone whom Dave interacted with during the warm-up.

I won’t go so far as to say that Dave has ever phoned it in, but there have been times when his finger has hovered dangerously close to the keypad.

There’s been a lot of speculation as to whether Letterman will ever return to TV, or whether he’ll just disappear like his idol, Carson.

And it’s also been pointed out that Carson never intended to quit completely, but just never found anything else he wanted to do. (And in its own way, I think that doing nothing was, paradoxically, a brilliant career move for Carson. When I heard that he had died, one of my first thoughts was that it would no longer be possible to hope that someday, maybe, just maybe, he’d resurface somewhere, however briefly, and be just as funny. For although he had left us laughing, it was always hard for me to accept that Johnny Carson had really left.)

I’d like to think that Letterman will return in a format that suits both him and the audience – maybe something quick and easy once in a while. Something like Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”

And as sorry as I am to see Letterman go, in a way I’m looking forward to his last show. For although he is a comedian, Letterman, like Carson, is fundamentally a broadcaster -- his powerful remarks after 9/11 prove that – and I’m sure he’ll go out with his idol’s same type of Midwestern style, with at least a few grace notes thrown in.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Fun at the puzzle tournament

(SPOILER ALERT: If you are among the solvers who will be doing this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament puzzles by mail, you shouldn’t read this now.)

I didn’t ask for the change of venue, but now that the proceedings are over, I have no plans to appeal.

I began competing in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in 2008, the first year it was held in Brooklyn. It had moved there from Stamford, Connecticut, where it had always been held, after a documentary about the event caused attendance to zoom so much that the event outgrew the hotel.

Last year, with attendance leveling off, tournament officials announced that the event would be moved back to Stamford. This meant that instead of a simple plane ride to JFK or LaGuardia and a cab to Brooklyn, I’d have to take a train to Manhattan, then catch a commuter train to Stamford.

But I was pleasantly surprised by how well things went. True, the Amtrak ride was a long one, but I didn’t have to go through all the fun stuff you have to do just to get to the gate – just get on, show your ticket to the conductor and settle back. Perhaps it helped that my maternal grandfather, whom I never met, was a railroad worker, and I remember my uncle telling me that he, my aunt and my mother had train passes until they were 21.

So the move back to Stamford was a good idea.

But you didn’t come hear to here about my travel travails, so on to the puzzles….

As always, the first puzzle on this Saturday is an easy warm-up: “Whom Not to Invite to the Party,” by Tracy Bennett. It has an asymmetrical grid, in the middle of which black spaces are arranged to form a frowning face.

I do well on this, though as in past years I maybe take a little too much time checking my answers as I work toward my eventual goal of beating my ranking from last year – 164, down from my best showing, 142.

Puzzle 2 is supposed to be the second most difficult, but I’m able to spot the theme right away. Joel Fagliano’s “Tearing the World Apart” splits the names of continents across several horizontal lines – so you find, for example, EURydice and antiPOPE. I seem to make fairly good time on this.

Continuing the geographical motif, Puzzle 3, by Merl Reagle, is “Our Expanding Cities.” Having done many of Reagle’s Sunday puzzles in my local paper, I’m ready for his brand of pleasingly outlandish wordplay, which includes this clue: “City that’s out of touch with the other cities in this puzzle?” Answer: DISCHENECTADY.

After the lunch break, I’m feeling pretty good, figuring I’ve nailed all three puzzles.

Then I make the mistake of asking the nice lady next to me to check my scores on her phone.

My score for Puzzle 2 is much lower than it should be.

The scans for Puzzle 2 are already online, and when she called mine up on her screen I see my error: For “River of central Germany” I have ODER instead of EDER. Because of this mistake, I miss out on more than 200 points.

So as I go into Puzzle 4, I have to work a bit to maintain my concentration and not let my ODER stink up any chances for improving my score. Fortunately, Paula Gamache’s “Odes” is fairly easy (“Ph.D. candidate’s ode?” TO A HIGHER DEGREE”), and I nail it.

Next comes the dreaded Puzzle 5, often referred to as “the bastard puzzle,” which is supposed to be the trickiest of the seven puzzles that everyone does. This year it is “Attention, Newbies!” by Jeff Chen.

Over the years I have decided that the way to handle Puzzle 5 is not to get too intimidated -- just fill in as many clues as you can and hope the theme will become clear. In this case, it takes quite a while, especially because during the first five minutes of this 30-minute puzzle I’m unable to make much of a dent in it.

But as usual in crossword land, persistence pays off, and I eventually get what’s going on: In the theme answers, one or two Bs have been added, so that the answer to “Rebounds” is not CAROMS but CAR BOMBS. (New Bs – get it?)

Maybe with 10 minutes more I might have nailed this puzzle, but as it stands I finished more of it than most of the contestants (as usual with Puzzle 5, few seemed to finish it).

Puzzle 6, the last puzzle of the day, is “Company Turnarounds” by Lynn Lempel, who does a lot of the easy Monday New York Times puzzles. (“Jewel to wear on Election Day?” TUESDAY RUBY.) I do a perfect job on this.

On Sunday morning, as I head downstairs to do Puzzle 7, my score is in the upper 150s, an improvement over last year, though not by much, though Puzzle 7 is the biggest one in terms of clues and is given the most time – 45 minutes. So if I can nail all the clues and finish well ahead of time, I have a very good chance at scoring mucho points.

On the elevator with me as I head down are several guys, one of whom is instantly familiar: Jason Keller, a former Jeopardy! champ, who is competing in the tournament. Over the years I’ve also seen a couple of other champs from the show competing. Monetarily, this seems odd; the tournament’s top prize is $5,000, which is chicken feed to any Jeopardy! champ who is good enough to make the show’s annual Tournament of Champions, as all three of these guys have done. The only thing I can figure is that to them, the crossword competition is just another Everest.

As I get ready for Puzzle 7, the seat next to me is taken by someone I’ve seen at most of the other tournaments: mystery writer Parnell Hall.

If you’ve never read any of his stuff, you should look him up. He writes mystery novels that are both cleverly plotted and funny. If you think that’s easy, try it sometime – chances are that you’ll decide to take up a less perilous pastime, like juggling chain saws.

One of Mr. Hall’s series stars a woman who is famous for making crossword puzzles -- – which are really constructed by her niece – and for solving murders. He and I have a chat about the mystery business, and like most of the mystery writers I’ve met since I began to sell some of my stuff, he’s very nice and treats me as a fellow professional, though I’m sure not yet at the point where I deserve that title.

Our conversation is so enjoyable that I almost forget I’m there to do a puzzle, in this case “I’d Sooner Spooner” by the often tricky Patrick Berry. I know I’m in my element, because I know that a spoonerism is a familiar phrase in which a couple of beginning letters have been switched, so that “Merchandise at an Indian grocery?” is CURRIES AND WARES (instead of Worries and Cares).

We have 45 minutes to do this big puzzle, and I’m finished with 26 minutes left on the clock, with the grid filled in perfectly.

The last puzzle, by Byron Walden, is done only by the finalists, a group that – surprise! – doesn’t include me. The big showdown involves (in alphabetical order) Howard Barkin, Dan Feyer and Tyler Hinman, and this finish is about as exciting as you can get, and you can see it here.

As for me, I finish in 154th place out of about 560 – an acceptable improvement over last year, but were it not for the ODER/EDER screw-up, I probably would have been 133rd.

But there’s always next year’s tournament, which begins on April Fools’ Day.

Sure hope that’s not an omen.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Across and down to Stamford

This weekend I'll be once again competing in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

I began going to this competition seven years ago, when it was being held in Brooklyn.

This year the tournament is returning to Stamford, Conn., which is where it started in the 1970s.

As in past years, I'll be reporting on the tournament -- and on how I did.

So feel free to bate your respective breaths. (As for me, I'm nervous enough about switching trains in Manhattan....)

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Ms. Sutkus, can you ever forgive me?

I learned to type while I was in high school, more than 40 years ago.

I learned to type on a manual typewriter, under the tutelage of a very nice – and very young and attractive – woman whom I will call Ms. Sutkus, which seems like a reasonably good idea, considering that her name really was Ms. Sutkus. (And yes, you smart-alecks out there, she did have an actual first name, but I’m going to honor her privacy and not reveal it – it’s the least I can do, considering what I have done to her.)

There were maybe 25 students in the class, and every day we would type exercises out of a book, usually to the tune of some classical music. I can’t remember what most of those tunes were, but there is one that I’ve always remembered, and on the rare occasion when I’ve heard it – I still don’t know the name or composer – I always think of that typing class, and Ms. Sutkus, and what I have done to her.

From the get-go I was quite good at typing, probably because I had taken piano lessons for five years, and my skills on a musical keyboard seemed to translate well to an Underwood or Smith-Corona or whatever we used in class.

So after I completed that yearlong class I felt that I was a fairly good typist, though not perfect, of course. Who is?

Several months after I finished my college years – during which I dutifully typed all my papers on the portable Smith-Corona my uncle gave our family (and which now sits a few feet away for me, kept for sentimental purposes) – I walked into the newsroom of my local newspaper, asked to be considered for an opening I’d heard about, and took an editing test.

After reviewing my test, the managing editor gave it back to me and told me to type it up on one of the newsroom typewriters.

An electric typewriter.

I had never before used an electric typewriter, but I wasn’t about to tell the M.E. that.

And in retrospect, I probably didn’t really have to tell him that.

He probably figured it out after it took me one hour to type the test, which was maybe three pages of double-spaced text.

But he hired me anyway, and thus began a career that spanned more than 30 years.

During which I became more accomplished in the use of an electric typewriter.

Then the computers came in, and I adjusted to those keyboards, too.

But in recent years I think I might have adjusted all too well.

Because computers are, to an extent, forgiving. If you mistype something, chances are it will auto-correct it for you. (It did just that a moment ago, as I was mistyping “mistype.”)

And because you don’t have to stop and erase something, or use that smelly white stuff to cover it up (and it usually looks cheesy later and doesn’t fool anybody, does it?), well, you can get lazy.

I know this has happened to me. If I had a dime for every time I mistyped something while in a hurry on a computer – on the job or not – it still wouldn’t repay Ms. Sutkus, who is God knows where right now, for all the shame that I, once a star pupil, have caused her.

And this late in life I know I will never be able to make it up to her.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

For your holiday reading pleasure (I hope)....

Some years ago I wrote a holiday mystery story, "The Afternoon Before Christmas."

And for some years it appeared on a mystery website, and every year I would link to it.

For the past few years I haven't linked to it because it was no longer online.

But I'm happy to say that it is now appearing on the Over My Dead Body! website. It is 1,500 words long, you can read it free and you can find it here.

And I hope you will take the opportunity to browse the rest of the Over My Dead Body! website because there are a lot of fine people writing for it, and the person who runs it, Cherie Jung, is one of the most considerate and professional editors around.

Feel free to let me know what you think of "The Afternoon Before Christmas."

And last -- and most important -- happy holidays!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Who says big business doesn't have a heart?

A friend of mine who turned a year older this week posted this note on Facebook:

"Awww. I got a picture of a birthday cupcake from the bank that I finance my car through."

"How sweet," I replied. "Next month, send them a picture of a check."

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Smiles from some long-ago summer nights

In my household, one of the pleasures of being a kid in the summer was the occasional granting of a rare privilege:

Staying up past your usual bedtime.

I can’t recall exactly what that usual bedtime was, but I know for darn sure that I was in bed by 11 – and probably by 10 – most nights.

But once in a while in the summer, my parents would ease this restriction and I would be allowed to see some of the stuff I’d been missing.

I especially remember one night when it was so hot that I and my younger siblings were allowed to sleep downstairs in the living room, on bed sheets, after watching “The Tonight Show”! (Not to mention listening to the national anthem at the end of the now interminable “broadcast day.”)

This was in the early 1960s. Johnny Carson had taken over the show, but on this particular night the host was Groucho Marx, who introduced a comic we’d never seen before. I still remember his routine – something about karate.

It was Bill Cosby, not very long before his groundbreaking role in “I Spy.”

Usually we were in bed long before "The Tonight Show" came on, though my folks might make an exception if it was New Year’s Eve.

But sometimes we made it all the way to 11 p.m. before our parents decided that enough was enough, even for a summer night.

One show I remember – I think it was on Wednesday nights – was called “Stump the Stars.” It was basically charades with celebrities. I never quite understood the show – I’ve never been a big fan of charades, and the charades that were acted out were quite long. Watching Sebastian Cabot act out some not-very-funny joke wasn’t exactly the cultural highlight of the season, but hey – it’s past my bedtime, and I’m downstairs watching TV!

“Stump the Stars” was hosted by a guy named Mike Stokey, whose whole career seemed to consist of hosting this show under various titles over the years. I recently watched one episode on YouTube. I’d never seen the episode, but it pretty much seemed like the few episodes I managed to see in the 1960s, with celebrities whose names will probably be familiar only to those of my generation and earlier: actress Phyllis Kirk, comedian Jerry Lester and the great actor/raconteur Hans Conried. In one neat live TV moment, the rather conservative Conried takes offense at something done by Lester off screen. (Not surprising, considering that the works of Noel Coward were conspicuously absent from Lester’s resume.)

Another show I watched way back when, but which I don’t remember too well now, was “Masquerade Party.” The idea was simple: a celebrity comes out in a costume, and the panel has to guess who it is. I found an episode on YouTube, but though it was enjoyable enough, something that happened at the end bothered me: They brought out another celeb, also costumed, whose identity would be guessed the following week. Nothing wrong with that, but when you’re watching the show 50 years later and you realize you’ll never find out who this person is, well, it feels a little creepy, though I can hardly blame the producers for that.

One series that I remember – and it’s well-represented on YouTube – is “What’s My Line?” I can remember staying up late on a summer Sunday and watching these sophisticated people play the game – live! And there was something thrilling about seeing the mystery guest come out, always to great applause.

As I watch the episodes on YouTube, the show seems exactly the way I remember it from when I was a kid. New York seemed a different, more magical place then, and even now it’s fun to watch an unmasked mystery guest reminisce with a panelist about some play they once did together. It makes me almost want to take a vacation via time machine: A week in New York in the 1950s or 1960s. You’ll notice I said “almost” – there would always be the chance that I’d be disappointed, that the world of New York wasn’t really golden but bronze -- or even leaden.

However, it is a nice place to visit on YouTube, which I often do when I should be doing something else like, um, blogging. (I especially recommend seeking out the episode where mystery guest Red Skelton is quizzed by blindfolded panelist Fred Allen. Live, ad libbed TV comedy doesn’t get any better.)

But it did occur to me recently that in today’s world, a producer would be less likely to risk doing “What’s My Line?” live.

Because it amazes me to think that during the show’s Sunday night run, which lasted about 17 years, with most of the episodes live, they always brought out a mystery guest and no one – NO ONE – in the audience ever yelled out something like, “Hey, it’s Jackie Gleason!” It probably would never have occurred to anyone in the audience to do that.

Today? I’m not so sure, though I’d be delighted to be proved wrong.